If you’re joining us today, I’m with NYT- and USA Today-bestselling author, Lisa Brackmann. In Part I of this interview, we talked about the professional writer’s mindset and Lisa’s suggestions on how to incorporate topical events into fiction. In this part of the interview: one of Lisa’s core themes and writing a potentially controversial ending. (No spoilers.)
Jan: As with your debut, I see the seeds of social commentary under GETAWAY’s thriller plot. Without getting into any spoilers, Michelle’s Mexican vacation is a last hurrah before she faces the consequences of her husband’s shoddy business practices. She seems a victim, but as events unfold, I begin to wonder about a pattern of willful blindness. Talk to me about ignorance, Lisa. Why is it important, and why does it get under your skin?
Lisa: I think, for one, life is short and unpredictable, and so many of us sleepwalk through our days. We don’t really live, and in materially wealthy societies, where most of us who are reading this have not had to contend with not having enough food to eat, or not having a place to sleep, or living in fear that armed gangs may threaten our lives, this just strikes me as terribly sad and so wasteful.
I don’t want to belittle the very real existential problems that people grapple with in wealthy countries, so-called “First World problems,” because a lot of those are very real. People are unhappy for real reasons. We live in societies, where, in my opinion, some things have gone terribly wrong. People work and work and work, for less financial reward, in more stressful environments, “doing more with less,” in communities where civic institutions have been defunded; they’re trying to send their kids to colleges where the tuitions have increased to levels where the kids graduate with crushing debt. We’re encouraged to value wealth and material success above all, and the professions that have somehow been deemed those most worthy of pursuit because of the money you can make from them are, to me, not all that valuable in any real positive sense. I mean, you’re telling me that options traders and mega-bank CEOs contribute more to society than teachers or firemen?
I realize that sounds like a tired progressive trope, but it’s true.
I think we Americans are living in a country where the wealthy and the powerful have manipulated our so-called democratic institutions and turned them into money-funnelling devices, where the wealth is taken out of the pockets of the poor and the working and middle-classes and redistributed upwards, where the very notion of “the Commons,” of the common good and communal institutions that are not profit-based have been devalued. I think that decades of very sophisticated propaganda have helped bring this about. And it’s trends like this that require us to wake up and understand what’s really going on. I honestly don’t know how we bring about positive change in these circumstances, but I do know that said change is impossible if people are not awake to the conditions in which they actually live.
Now does this specifically relate to Michelle?
Bringing it back to the book—because in spite of all this ranting, I really did try to write an entertaining thriller here—Michelle is a person who chose comfort over risk. I can’t condemn her for that. As a species, we are conditioned to seek comfort and to take advantage of that when we find it. But we also have the ability to evaluate our situation and ask ourselves if we’re making the best choices.
Michelle’s backstory is, she wasn’t happy in her marriage. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t satisfying. And she’s not sure how much of that is her relationship with her husband, Tom, and how much of that is her lack of challenge and engagement with her own life. She’s seeking some kind of passion, but isn’t sure where to find it. She knows that something is not quite right with what Tom is doing in his business, but she chooses not to press him about it. Because in spite of her vague discontent, she is living a comfortable life, materially. She’s able to do what she wants. If only she knew what it was that she wanted!
We all ask ourselves about the risks involved with making changes. What we tend not to ask about is the risk of not choosing. Of staying in the same place. In Michelle’s case, her comfortable life was built on sand, and she ends up in a far riskier place by not making a change before it all collapsed.
Michelle is forced to come to grips with her own culpability in her husband’s misdeeds, her enabling of his bad behaviour by pretending that nothing was wrong. Her challenge throughout the book is to understand the dangerous situation in which she’s landed, the reality of how things work. And the reality is not pretty. What her husband did wasn’t violent, but it was corrupt, and she’s now seeing how corruption can lead to violence, how they inevitably intertwine. She’s seeing that a lot of the comfort enjoyed by the wealthy is built on a foundation of poverty. And having lost her former position of privilege, she’s realizing just how disposable she is in this kind of system.
If you could have your wish, what concrete steps would individuals take to remain knowledgeable and engaged in the world’s issues?
First, we have to provide people with the analytical tools they need to be knowledgeable and engaged. I feel like there’s been a systematic dumbing down of culture, starting with public education, continuing onto what passes as public and political discourse. People need a knowledge base to work from. They also need to understand how to learn.
I used to have a job doing research. People would say to me, “you must know a lot of stuff.” And you know, I have a pretty broad, albeit shallow, knowledge base. But mainly what I learned in that job was how to find out the things I didn’t know. In other words, where to look for information. How to evaluate it. How to learn.
We also need to come up with some way to support a free and independent press and independent journalists. The concentration of ownership of media is a pretty scary thing in the US – I think we are down to six corporate entities that control the vast majority of media in this country. We’ve seen newspapers and magazines’ budgets slashed past the bone, in part because of the tremendous changes in how information is disseminated (the internet) but also because corporate owners insist on not just profits but growth of profits.
Democracy is impossible without an informed citizenry, and a watchdog press is essential for that.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that public institutions that contribute to knowledge are under attack. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that public universities and colleges are so underfunded that kids are graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt from increased tuition, or that public universities whore themselves out to private corporations for research money. I think there has been a systematic effort in this country over the last thirty plus years to devalue the very notion of the public and the Commons, to brainwash people into thinking that the marketplace is the only legitimate conferrer of value. And while the marketplace is great at a lot of things, without a balance of social justice and the common good, it becomes a tool of oppression that is highly vulnerable to manipulation by the wealthy and the powerful. Anyone who thinks that the prices we pay for things are set purely by the laws of supply and demand is incredibly naïve. The cynical part of me thinks that’s by design.
Lastly, I want to address the ending. You know there are readers who are going to struggle with it. Did you go through any personal or editorial soul-searching about the ending? How do you balance reader / writer/ industry expectations?
Truthfully? No. I felt like it was realistic – it answered the questions that could actually be answered at that point in the story, and it also concluded as much about Michelle’s future as could really be concluded. My agent and editors were really supportive and didn’t question it, although I did get a great suggestion from my agent to clarify Michelle’s emotional journey, which I implemented. And I think I was warned that some readers would have a problem with the ending, because there are a few things that are left open-ended. But basically everyone involved signed on and felt that it was an appropriate ending for the story. I thought that the ending wrapped up all of the thematic concerns rather neatly!—I have to admit that I’ve been a little surprised by the number of readers who characterized it as a “cliff-hanger” and want to know where the next book is.
Who knows, maybe I’ll write one!
Readers, thanks for being here today. There’s still time to comment to win a copy of Lisa Brackmann’s Getaway if you live within continental North America. Share this post on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, or in a blog post, then let me know of that in a separate comment. Each person can enter up to four times. Contest ends on May 23, winner to be selected by RNG.
Please note we’ve covered some political ground today. While Lisa welcomes ongoing conversation, I am The Tart and will confine the discussion to respectful debate.
Take it away, peeps.